Recently I was watching an episode of House of Cards on Netflix, when they made an offhand mention of a game known as Monument Valley. Their description of the game intrigued me, so I decided to check it out. I downloaded the game on my Iphone, and I was hooked instantly.
Everything about the game was top notch, from the art style to the sound design, and especially the puzzles. This game, in which you play as a small princess character making her way through a series of strange and physically impossible puzzles, had some incredibly original and creative puzzle designs. After completing the original game I downloaded and played the sequel, which I think did an even better job.
When done right, puzzles can add a lot to a game. They can add depth to the world, add variety to gameplay, and force your player to think about the game in a different way. When done poorly, however, puzzles can seem pointless, frustrating or impossible. In this article, I want to take a look at a few of the things that I think make a good puzzle in games, and how to design them in a way that enhances the game rather than hurting it.
Let the Player Know there is a Puzzle
You are playing a survival horror game, and you reach a locked door. It looks just like every other locked door you have seen up to this point in the game, and every other door has required a key to open. You try searching around all the cupboards and drawers for a key, but none can be found. It turns out, in order to unlock this door you need to backtrack, go down the stairs into the basement, and pull a series of levers in the proper sequence to unlock the door.
What’s wrong with the above scenario? The problem doesn’t lie with the puzzle itself. Puzzles involving levers, switches, or other mechanisms that must be correctly placed in the right orientation are some of the oldest and most popular types of puzzles used in games, and can be very effective. The problem with the situation listed above is that the game did not make it clear to the player that there was a puzzle at all.
Puzzles are designed to challenge the player, and force them to look at a problem from a different perspective. However, in order for this to happen a player must realize that there is a puzzle to solve. In the example above, the player never even starts trying to solve the puzzle because they are used to dealing with locked doors in a specific way. If the door was clearly different than other doors that the player had encountered, or if a short message was shown when the player tried to interact with the door, this would tip the player off that it probably cannot be opened in the usual way.
Make the Player’s Options Clear
The player moves their character into a large, grassy courtyard. The courtyard is filled with statues, much like the kind that stand guard along the walls of the castle you have just escaped. At the far end of the courtyard is a large, ornate gate that blocks your path. You have seen gates like this before, and there is always a puzzle before you can pass. An inscription on the gate reads “The last one standing shall advance”. “Simple”, you think. All I have to do is defeat all the enemies! But no enemies appear.
After waiting for a while, you start trying everything you can think of. You run around, chopping the grass and checking the walls for hollow spots. You climb up onto window ledges, but it’s too high for you to make it to the roof. You even place a bomb on a weird patch of dirt in the grass, thinking maybe you will uncover the entrance to an underground cave. Nothing happens, and eventually you get frustrated and stop playing for a while.
In the situation above, the solution to the puzzle was to destroy all of the statues. Unfortunately, the player never even considered this as an option because up to this point you have never been able to interact with the statues. After playing a game for a while, players begin to develop a shorthand for what they can and cannot do in the game. They know what kinds of things they can carry, what they can break, what they can climb on and what they can damage. When designing a puzzle, I believe care should be take to make sure that the solution to the puzzle makes sense in the context of the game so far.
Going back to monument valley, they do a great job of this. This game has some very mind-bending puzzles, which had a lot of potential to be confusing. Luckily, the designers use very simple and clear visual elements to make it clear which elements of the environment can be interacted with. In the above image, the elements that the player can move are a bluish shade, which contrasts with the immobile red elements that make up the majority of the stage. If the elements are the same color as the stage, they use simple dot elements to show that something can be moved or rotated. While the player still has to solve the puzzle, the game at least makes it very clear what they can and cannot move.
The Challenge of the Puzzle is Finding the Solution
You step onto the elevator, and descend into the dark shrine. As you explore, you see a glowing sphere. Across from it – you see a glowing pedestal. Your job is simple – get the glowing ball onto the pedestal. However, you cannot reach the ball. The only way to move the ball is by using motion controls to move a giant golf club, and hit the ball where it needs to go. You know what you need to do, and you know how to do it, but the motion controls move awkwardly and unintuitively. You end up bending and twisting your body into impossible shapes, and yet you still cannot convince the controls to move the way you want. Incredibly frustrated, you pick up your Nintendo Switch, throw it into the garbage, and light it on fire.
I think that Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a nearly perfect game. It has a beautiful art style, and incredibly vast and dense world, and most of it’s puzzles are actually pretty interesting and well done. That being said, there is one aspect of this game that was so bad that it almost caused me to quit the game. I am referring, of course, to the motion control puzzles.
Many of these puzzles had interesting premises, such as “rotate the block to light all the torches while avoiding the streams of water”. These puzzles would have been fun, satisfying challenges except for one thing – the motion controls never stinkin’ worked! Even after figuring out the solution to the problem, the game made executing that solution a sincere pain in the butt. Personally, I think that the fun of puzzles is the mental challenge of solving them. Once a player has found that solution, they should be able to put it into action and move on.
Teach the Players What They Need to Know
One of my favorite puzzle games of all time is Portal. For those who don’t know, portal is a puzzle game in which the player is equipped with a “portal gun”. Using this gun, they can create holes which can connect two different places. This one simple mechanic turns out to have a lot of depth build into it, and forms the foundation for all of the puzzles in the game.
Aside from having a strong core mechanic, one of Portal’s biggest strengths is the way it teaches the player everything they need to know as the game goes on. It starts with relatively simple challenges, and over time introduce more complicated situations. Every puzzle builds off of the lessons that the player has previously learned. Even when the solutions are not obvious, the player always has the tools that they need to move forward. This creates a satisfying feeling of progression, and allows for some very complicated, intricate puzzles that still feel solvable.
Keep your Audience in Mind
There are few individual puzzles that stand out in my mind as much as the boulder puzzle in Pokemon Sapphire. I was only 9 years old when I first played that game, and I still remember the frustration I felt when I first came upon those forsaken rocks. I had traveled across the land of Hoenn, taking down any gym or trainer that stood in my way and yet I was to be stopped by a few little pebbles!
While I eventually figured out the solution (mostly by trying everything my little mind could think of), this challenge was extremely difficult and frustrating for my young self. While I am not against difficult puzzles, this puzzle stands out to me as an example of a puzzle that is not well suited to the audience and the game that it is in. Pokemon is designed to be accessible for younger players, and is not a dedicated puzzle game. The fun of these games comes from collecting and battling monsters, not moving rocks. Not to mention that this puzzle was during a key moment in the story, and completely stopped the game in it’s tracks.
On the one hand, the puzzle did a lot of things right. The player is aware that the puzzle exists, and it is clear which boulders the player is able to move. This is not the first time the player has encountered boulders, so they are already aware of how moving boulders around works in this game. Really, it only has one flaw – it’s really dang tough, especially for younger players.
Because of this, I believe that puzzle designers should keep in mind who their audience is. While puzzles can break up gameplay and provide a fun diversion, they should not bring the game to a grinding halt. If the game is aimed towards a younger audience, it should provide puzzles that are solvable by that audience. Overly difficult puzzles (when they aren’t the point of the game) can kill all the momentum of a game, and are generally not very fun.
The Solution Should make Logical Sense
You walk into a clearing in the dark woods, and at the center stands a lone, tall tree. At the very top of the tree you can see the treasure chest glittering. First, you try climbing the tree, but realize that it is not covered in the thick vines you usually use for climbing. Undeterred, you pull the ladder out of your inventory and try to use that. No luck. You realize that the solution may be to cut down the tree and bring the treasure chest closer to you. You first try your axe, then your saw, but neither work.
Eventually, you come upon the obvious solution. You give a pair of jeweled earrings to a pirate back at the docks (as a gift for his wife). In return, he allows you to borrow his parrot. You then take the parrot into the forest, and he flies up the tree. The parrot narrowly avoids an attack by a panther who lived in the tree, and the panther accidentally knocks down the treasure chest. Simple!
The last, and perhaps most important principle of puzzle design is very simple. The solution of the puzzle has to make logical sense! In many cases, however, games have puzzles with incredibly specific and nonsensical solutions that not only defy the logic of the game but real-world logic as well. These types of puzzles are especially common in adventure games, and can actually end up being far, far more complicated than the one I described above. To all the game designers out there that might be reading this – if you take anything away from this article, let it be this. Please don’t design these puzzles!
Until Next Week
That is all I have for this week! If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I will be talking about the game design of ancient war games!